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The News Broadcasters Association on Monday questioned the credibility of TV viewership measurement agency Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) India, terming its ratings unreliable, and criticized what it called the arbitrary nature of its functioning and lack of transparency.

Recent controversies, triggered by the arrests of TV channel bosses and BARC’s former executives by Mumbai police and leaked WhatsApp messages about the manipulation of ratings, have cast a shadow on the currency used by close to 800 TV channels in India to claim a share of the 30,000 crore of advertising money.

With the TV viewership ratings under scrutiny, advertising on the mass medium is likely to face challenges in the near future. Advertisers have been asked to pause spending on TV channels, a media buying agency executive said.

“Advertisers have concerns and apprehension around BARC data. There are questions around both the credibility and the action taken by the authorities thus far. Our guidance to clients has been to hold on to spends, especially on news channels, till there is more clarity," the executive said on condition of anonymity.

A clutch of companies and media buyers Mint reached out to either declined to comment or refused to go on record on the crisis facing television advertising. Hindustan Unilever Ltd, one of India’s largest advertisers, did not respond to Mint’s query till press time. A top executive of another consumer goods firm said he can’t comment on the company’s advertising strategy as the matter has not been discussed internally.

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With regard to news broadcaster Republic TV, which is at the centre of the controversy, a senior executive at an automobile company said there will be an impact on the channel’s advertisements in the coming months since corporates will not be comfortable putting their money after the recent developments. “Apart from ratings and return on investment, firms also look at the goodwill of any channel, and recent developments have put a question mark on the overall credibility of the channel," the person said.

Yet the challenge for advertisers may not be limited to news alone since the credibility of ratings across genres is now being questioned. There is little clarity on the depth of the malaise.

“Advertisers are in a fix. They have two options, either to go by benchmark numbers provided by BARC or stick to their gut feeling. The problem is both these options are constraining. Advertisers can rely on the direct-to-home (DTH) data, which will give information on the top channels in specific markets but will not provide customer segmentation. This is not an ideal option when significant media money investment is involved," an executive from a financial services firm said, declining to be identified.

R.S. Sodhi, managing director of Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation, the maker of Amul dairy products, said the company does not decide its media plan only on the basis of TRPs but uses its own field workforce to understand what is being watched in towns and cities.

“That said, once the data comes under doubt, it is not easy for advertisers. For TV ratings, there should have been an independent agency and not one that is majority-owned by broadcasters (60% of BARC is owned by broadcasters, 20% by advertisers and 20% by ad agencies). After all, it is not small advertising money that we are talking about," Sodhi said. However, he added that advertisers are unlikely to cut out TV from their plans.

Parle Products Pvt. Ltd, which paused advertising on news channels that it deemed toxic last year, agreed. The maker of Parle-G biscuits, which spends 80% of its advertising budget on TV, is not keen to shift its ad spends. However, the company is in conversations to ensure transparency in the rating system.

“There is immense pressure on BARC to tighten the measures, and all other broadcasters are equally concerned, not just advertisers, because monies are lined up purely based on ratings. There is huge money at stake. There is pressure on BARC to ensure there are no mishaps in the future," said Krishna Rao, senior category head, Parle Products.

Parle has several campaigns live on TV currently. “It will not really impact the equity of BARC because the episode was under a former employee. Having said that, it is still someone who was at a senior position, understood the nuances of the system, which is a cause of concern. Moving forward, BARC will need a lot of documentation in place, and both BARC and broadcasters will need to be extremely responsible," Rao added.

In its statement on Monday, NBA said it was shocked by the messages exchanged between BARC India’s former CEO, Partho Dasgupta, and Arnab Goswami, managing director of ARG Outlier Media Pvt. Ltd, and asked for Republic TV’s membership of the Indian Broadcasting Foundation to be suspended.

It also asked BARC to make a clear statement about the veracity of its ratings in the period during the audit, conduct an audit of the Hindi news genre, expunge the data of the erring broadcaster and re-state the real position of rankings of all news channels. It also sought from BARC details of steps taken in the last three months to secure ratings and bring transparency to the process.

Shuchi Bansal contributed to the story.

The credibility of ratings across genres is now being questioned.
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The credibility of ratings across genres is now being questioned.
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